Close your eyes and picture the United States.

What comes to mind?

Odds are, what you’re envisioning is in some way emblematic of the U.S. and, therefore, a certain kind of Americana.

Naturally, you’ll want your photos to capture this American essence. That said, an essence can be a tricky thing to photograph. If you’re looking to distill a sense of America in your photographs, utilize this guide.

AMERICANA, DEFINED

Americana is any artifact relating to the history, geography, folklore, and cultural heritage of the United States. It is, essentially, the physical representation of the country’s values in object form. We often associate “nostalgia” with Americana, but to truly understand the nuance of the term, it’s is best to look through some examples.

Photo by Denny Nguyen

EXAMPLES OF AMERICANA

Americana can take many forms — some of which are more abstract than physical. But let’s start with the objects that are more easily identified.

The American flag is one of the most obvious symbols of American freedom, and thus a prime example of Americana. Red, white, and blue can be seen all across the country, so you’ll want to have your camera ready in case you stumble across them.

Photo by Dennis Petkovsek

The country’s pastime — baseball — is Americana too. The game has been played in the U.S. for well over 150 years and is incredibly popular in the States. You’ll find the diamond-shaped fields everywhere.

Signs of automobile culture in America can also be a form of Americana — vintage cars, license plates, the idolization of the open road, and even old gas stations. Driving is its own sort of culture in the United States, so you’ll want to find creative ways to document it.

Other examples of Americana include Coca-Cola memorabilia, white-picket fences, blue jeans, apple pie, rock and roll, and small towns.

Finally, Americana can be represented by more abstract ideas. Things like “the American Dream,” freedom, patriotism, the great outdoors, and “the Wild West” are also Americana, but aren’t easily identifiable in certain objects or logos. Instead, it’s up to you — the traveler and artist — to observe the physical embodiment of these ideas and capture them in your photography.

TIPS FOR CAPTURING AMERICANA THROUGH PHOTOGRAPHY

The phrase “you’ll know it when you see it” definitely applies to Americana. Keep your eyes peeled for any of the examples listed above, but also watch for other objects, scenes, or landscapes that strike you as distinctly American.

Once you’ve chosen your subject matter, take some time to compose your shot. Think about what initially struck you, what you want to convey, and what is going to draw viewers to the image in the same way you were drawn to the subject. Don’t be afraid to stop your car, ask someone if you’re allowed to photograph something on their property, or drop to the ground to get that perfect shot.

Photo by Corrie Mehl

While you’re shooting, focus on the details. Take multiple photos at different distances so you can choose your favorite angle after the fact, and keep an eye out for visual contradictions in the world around you. Americana often is embodied by antique artifacts or historical settings, so get close to your subject matter to see the unique elements of each object.

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When searching for subjects, you’ll inevitably gravitate toward a certain kind of Americana. Maybe you’ll love photographing the front doors of small towns in a particular region of the country. Maybe you’ll be drawn to junkyards or antique shops, and the interesting scraps and artifacts that can be found there. Or maybe you’ll find yourself captivated by the citizens of the United States. Either way, lean in to your curiosities — your passion will show through your images.

Photo by Nick Stewart
Photo by Bel Lindemann

Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to photograph Americana, as there’s no true definition of what Americana actually is. While exploring the diverse United States, interpret this essence as you will. Your unique view of the country and idea of Americana will be appreciated when others view your images.

Header image by Briana Moore.